Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ariel M. Sheetrit reviews Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution

Nadia YaqubPalestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 265 pp.

Review by Ariel M. Sheetrit

13 November 2019

I would imagine it to be daunting to write about a collection of films of which only a fraction is extant and available, as is the case for Palestinian films made between 1968 and 1982, many of which disappeared during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut. In Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution, Nadia Yaqub not only offers broad and rich discussions of some of the films of this period but she also finds meaning in the absence itself which, as she puts it, “resonates with conceptions of Palestinians as a people defined by loss” (p. 199). She casts this great rupture in terms of the very poetics that the films themselves engage and represent, turning their disappearance (or dispersal, as the case may be) into part of the story, rather than conceding the impossibility of examining a collection that is incomplete at best. Indeed, Yaqub’s is the first book devoted to this topic, certainly a reason in itself to welcome her study into the field of studies on Palestinian film.

Over the course of six wide-ranging chapters and an introduction (the book offers no synthesis of the research, forgoing a conclusions chapter), Yaqub approaches her subject from many angles. The book offers historical background about the rise of Palestinian revolutionary cinema and information about many of the figures involved in the creative process. It situates the Palestinian cinema of this period within the context of other revolutionary cinema movements and the mutual influence of Palestinian cinema from this period on “third cinema” and, more broadly, on Third World cinema. It also situates Palestinian cinema of the 1970’s within the context of burgeoning alternative Arab cinema beyond Palestine.     

Yaqub parts company with leading scholarship that has tended to regard film of this period through the narrow lens of trauma theory. Such scholarship contends that the films of this period neither present a sequential narrative nor address the Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe of 1948) explicitly because they embody traumatic memory. One of Yaqub’s strengths is that she does not explicitly challenge such contentions, but her observations weaken them critically. 

Yaqub exposes the diversity of the films of this period, making it unconvincing to group them in the single rubric of trauma, all the more since several engage the Nakba explicitly. Quite simply she shows that, whatever subsequent scholarship may have wished the filmmakers to do, neither they nor the PLO had the conscious goal of presenting a broad history of Palestinians or of contextualizing specific events. According to Yaqub, many films do not address the Nakba due to the debilitating shame it entailed; another reason is the stated goal of emphasizing Palestinian resistance in the face of present-day suffering and attacks. Yet another reason is the explicit choice to film short “event films” that disseminate specific news events to spectators.

Beyond her analyses of the films themselves against the background of the revolution they meant to record and foment, an important contribution of the book is the examination of the afterlife of this film movement. This examination is twofold, both showing the films’ role for survivors and for Palestinian identity generally, as can be gleaned from Facebook groups; the second is their relevance for contemporary Palestinian film. Yaqub does not exaggerate the quality of these films; nonetheless she sees past their limitations, exacerbated by the disappearance of so many of them, to their artistic and experimental merits and, most importantly, parses out their lasting importance for Palestinians today and for the present-day filmmakers who draw on them and draw inspiration from them.